According to the study, women who thought about future scenarios were able to postpone gratification, whether they were overweight or thin.
“This research is certainly welcome news for people who have struggled to lose weight, because it shows that when people are taught to imagine, or simulate the future, they can improve their ability to delay gratification,” said Leonard H. Epstein, Ph.D., professor in the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, who was senior author on the research.
The research is part of a field called prospection, the process by which people can project themselves into the future, by mentally simulating future events.
Epstein notes that many people have difficulty resisting the impulse for immediate gratification. Instead, they engage in “delay discounting,” in which they discount future rewards in favor of smaller, immediate rewards.
This tendency is associated with greater consumption of highly caloric, ready-to-eat foods, he said. Experts speculate that if people could modify delay discounting, they would be more successful at losing weight.
“Now we have developed a treatment for this,” he said. “We can teach people how to reduce delay discounting, where they learn how to mentally simulate the future in order to moderate their behavior in the present.”
For the study, the researchers recruited 24 lean women and 24 overweight and obese women. They all underwent several behavioral assessments to determine differences in each person’s motivation level, their perspective on time and how much they sought out fun and responded to rewards.
The researchers then evaluated how much delay discounting the women engaged in using a hypothetical test that promised different amounts of money, available either now or in the future. While the amount available in the future remained $100, the amount available immediately decreased during each test, eventually falling as low as $1.
The women were then asked to think about future events that would occur during the time periods involved in the test. For example, if they were choosing between $95 now and $100 in six months, they would be instructed to think about the most vivid event that would happen to them six months, such as a birthday party.
A control group was asked to think instead of vivid scenes from a Pinocchio story they had read.
The researchers found that those who engaged in the future thinking exercise were able to reduce delay discounting. They also found that there were few differences between the lean and the overweight and obese women.
In a study published earlier this year, Epstein and his colleagues demonstrated that overweight and obese women ate less when they imagined themselves in enjoyable future scenarios. This also reduced their inclination to engage in delay discounting, he said.
“In the current study, we show that episodic future thinking works equally well in overweight and obese women in comparison to lean women,” he said.
“That’s important since several studies have shown that overweight/obese women are more impulsive. The fact that projecting oneself into the future and imagining future scenarios works equally well for lean and overweight/obese women is important for designing interventions to reduce impulsive decision making in women who need to lose weight.”
The research, funded by a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, was published in the journal Appetite.
Source: SUNY University at Buffalo